“Lupin” and the Limits of “Haute Culture”

Does Netflix’s “Lupin” resist the notoriously white milieu of European high culture, or, instead, endorse it?

For centuries, Western classical music has been inextricable from white supremacy. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, music of the “Europhile tradition,” with its emphases on harmonics and tonality, became associated with refinement and sophistication. This music was pointedly contrasted with the supposedly “savage” sounds of non-tonal, non-Western, non-white music.1 Musical talent was also racialized. Victorian-era evolutionary, physiological, and acoustical scientists like Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton described Black and Indigenous people as capable of only base or sensual (rather than intellectually advanced) musical performances.2 As composer Nebal Maysaud more recently argued, “Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness.”

Even now, the racial politics of the Western classical music world are abysmal. According to The Guardian, Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) people comprise just 1.6 percent of the membership of UK orchestras. In the United States, only one full-time member of the storied 106-member New York Philharmonic, the clarinetist Anthony McGill, is Black. It is only recently that some classical music institutions have begun to reckon with their racist histories. The Paris Opéra has promised to address its long-held racist practices (including producing blackface performances as late as 2015) and the lack of diversity among both its ballet corps and its musicians. After watching the (notoriously white) Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert in 2021, the French Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf tweeted an impassioned call to the classical music world: “2021 on veut plus de diversité!”

It is within this world of Western “haute culture” that Netflix’s hit series Lupin (2021) unfolds. The show opens with the hero, a Black “gentleman burglar” named Assane Diop, stealing a necklace from the Musée du Louvre. It is the same diamond-encrusted collar that corrupt businessman Hubert Pellegrini long ago framed Assane’s father—a Senegalese refugee—for stealing. Later, in an elaborate scheme to gain the trust of Pellegrini’s daughter, Juliette, Assane pretends to steal Camille Pissarro’s The Seine and the Louvre from the Musée d’Orsay. Other references to les beaux arts pervade the series, from the pseudonym adopted by one of Assane’s accomplices (Courbet, “comme le peintre”), the locale of Pellegrini’s mansion at the Musée Nissim de Camondo (home to a collection of 18th-century decorative arts), to the high-end antiques traded by Assane’s lifelong friend Ben at the Marché aux Puces Saint-Ouen.

But while Assane’s revenge mission begins at the art museum, it concludes in the concert hall. Lupin’s sensational finale unfolds at a charity performance by the “French Symphony Orchestra,” likely modeled after either the Orchestre National de France or the Orchestre de Paris. The orchestra concert provides the backdrop for one of the show’s most pivotal sequences, in which Assane enters Hubert’s box and forces a confession out of him at knifepoint, before the police chase him through the bowels of the theater. Eventually, Assane makes his way to the stage and reveals the depths of Hubert’s corruption to the audience. Just as the police approach to arrest Assane, his accomplices extinguish the hall lights, and he disappears into the Parisian night.

The soundtrack to the authorities’ frantic pursuit of Assane is “La symphonie de Lupin,” composed by Mathieu Lamboley, followed by the rousing opening of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9. As director Hugo Gélin rhapsodized in a promotional interview for Netflix, “It all gets mixed up, the poetry of classical music with the violence of the police raid.”

Classical music certainly heightens the drama of this climactic sequence. Yet, classical music plays more than a merely atmospheric role in the finale. Lupin’s musical moments also highlight the show’s deeper—and more ambivalent—engagement with issues of race, class, and haute culture. While Lupin at times puts pressure on the whiteness of Western classical music, in other moments, it seems to endorse assimilationist and white saviorist notions about high culture’s capacity for racial and class uplift.

“Lupin” highlights the limitations of haute culture in generating radical social change.

Critics have offered mixed interpretations of what, precisely, Lupin is attempting to say about race and culture. Some praise the show for foregrounding a hero who, as Lorraine Ali of the Los Angeles Times writes, “repurpose[s] the systemic bigotry and classism that made his young life so rough.” Similarly, Rod Benson of SF Gate notes that the show offers an important portrayal of a “Black man stealing respect” and “rebel[ling] against French society at large.” “‘Lupin,’ he says, “is a master class in exposing race and class power structures.”

Other critics are more ambivalent. Amerley Ollennu and Tirhakah Love, for instance, critique the omission of Black women from the show, which instead “flood[s] the screen with white characters to push the narrative that ‘not all white people are bad.’” Moreover, Assane attends a fancy private school (paid for by Pellegrini’s wife to assuage her own guilt about the framing of Assane’s father), befriends mainly white intellectuals, and interacts with “nary a Black woman” in part 2 of the series. Cassie Da Costa of Vanity Fair looks askance at Lupin’s “confused racial politics,” noting, “Lupin is not a fantasy about racism and reparations, but a psychologically revealing fairytale about assimilation.”

Lupin’s engagement with classical music especially demonstrates these “confused racial politics.” At times, the show radically subverts the white supremacist traditions of classical music. In other moments, however, classical music appears more in service of the “fairytale of assimilation” that Da Costa describes. As such, Lupin highlights the limitations of haute culture in generating radical social change.

Lupin’s other musical plots feature similarly ambiguous racial politics. Assane’s entrée into the classical music world begins when he is a young boy. In an extended flashback sequence, he accompanies his friend (and later ex-wife) Claire to a music shop to replace her broken violin, which was damaged by her competitors at the Conservatoire de Paris before a major audition. Upon seeing Claire with Assane, however, the white shop owner refuses to rent to Claire and orders the pair to leave the store. Assane, no stranger to such discrimination, mutters “raciste” on his way out the door.

This moment not only rehearses an all-too-common instance of everyday racism but also nods to the long white supremacist histories of Western classical music. As Phil Harrison writes in The Guardian, the “Europhile classical tradition” was in many ways founded on the “dehumanisation” and exclusion of non-white, non-European people and cultures. The violin shop owner’s treatment of Assane is thus symptomatic of centuries-old exclusionary practices in the classical music world. His reaction to Assane’s very presence in his shop underscores that literal access to classical music spaces is restricted to certain races. Assane, however, finds a way to best him by returning later to steal an instrument for Claire to play at her audition. Though he is eventually caught—the police barge in on Claire’s audition during the climax of her solo—he ultimately escapes punishment by imitating the shop owner’s voice and pretending to leave a sympathetic voicemail for the headmaster of Assane’s school.


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In these moments, Assane infiltrates and disrupts two exclusionary institutions of classical music: the shop and the Conservatoire. By stealing an expensive instrument for an artist who cannot afford one, he redistributes the property necessary to participate in haute culture (though viewers must also keep in mind the more unsettling implications of Assane committing a crime for a white woman). The message, then, is that the notoriously exclusionary classical music world is perhaps not so impenetrable.

Assane’s violin theft as a young boy prefigures his exploits at the Théâtre du Châtelet. In these climactic scenes, Assane even capitalizes on some of classical music’s most exclusionary traditions to enact his revenge. It is, after all, classical concert etiquette that enables Assane to enter Hubert’s box undetected, threaten him at knifepoint without arousing attention, and even force (and secretly record) Hubert’s whispered confession. For over a century, this etiquette has mandated that audience members be still and silent so that “the music itself” can shine through. As Kirsty Sedgman writes, this promotion of manners, etiquette, comportment, and “good behavior” in the theater is based on long-held classist, racist, and ableist ideologies—centuries of “civilizing discourse” in which certain groups “wor[k] collectively to assert themselves as the obvious arbiters of reasonable behaviour.”3

Yet, Assane manipulates these codes of etiquette to his advantage. He knows that Hubert cannot scream, and the audience members, who must remain quiet and motionless in their seats, have little chance to detect him.

Assane seizes further control over the concert hall when he subsequently takes to the stage to reveal all to the audience. While, as several critics have pointed out, Assane most often draws on the invisibility that his Blackness grants him in order to achieve his exploits, here, he renders himself hyper-visible, taking the place of the conductor at the center of the stage. He gains even more control over this exclusive space when he signals his accomplices to turn out the lights so he can escape. Poetically, it is in the classical concert hall—long a bastion of white supremacy—that Assane is finally able to avenge his Senegalese immigrant father and send Pellegrini to jail.

The world of high culture might be disrupted or even democratized, but it is a long way from being remade.

In other moments, however, Lupin privileges “la haute culture” over any kind of radical politics. The show’s critique of classical music seems a bit murkier, for instance, if one considers the actual music played by the French Symphony Orchestra: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”).

Dvořák was allegedly inspired to write “From the New World” through his encounters—often secondhand—with Black and Indigenous musical traditions. Composing in 1892–93, he was influenced by the melodies of Black spirituals, many of which were introduced to him by Harry Burleigh, a Black student at the National Conservatory. While some musicologists view “From the New World” as a celebration of Black music and its essential role in the classical canon (Tom Huizenga of NPR recently referred to the piece as a “musical melting pot … a philosophy of inclusion rendered in music”), others interpret it as a more insidious instance of cultural appropriation. Musicologist Douglas Shadle observes that although many late 19th-century composers sought to “cut against the grain by arguing in favor of using ‘authentic’ nonwhite folk music as the basis of a national classical style, … their appropriation of nonwhite musical material perpetuated longstanding racist stereotypes of ‘barbarism,’ ‘exoticism,’ or ‘orientalism.”4

Dvořák himself made little effort to thoughtfully differentiate between the traditions from which he borrowed; he believed that “the music of the negroes and of the Indians was practically identical,” and that both traditions were reminiscent of Scottish tunes. As a program note from the Detroit Symphony recently suggested, even the title of the piece is a “Eurocentric phrase that creates a land of otherness on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.”

The acoustic backdrop to Assane’s triumphant revenge, then, is music firmly rooted in colonialist practices. It’s music that pays ostensible homage to Black culture, but only so as to appropriate it.

The presence of “From the New World” in this scene in Lupin is even more poignant given that the concert is a fundraising event to benefit a foundation with its own extractive and assimilationist politics. The Pellegrini Foundation, Juliette Pellegrini’s pet project, is vaguely designed, we learn, to offer “scholarships and cultural activities for children who don’t normally have access to them.” And while Hubert Pellegrini’s secret plot to funnel the fundraiser money into his own accounts is cartoonishly villainous, his ostensibly more virtuous daughter embodies the other side of the coin: white saviorism. As Juliette gushes to the foundation’s donors at a champagne and macaron-laden reception, “Not everyone has had the chance to have access to culture the way that I did when growing up. From a young age, I was able to visit beautiful museums, attend wonderful operas. … There were no limits where my father was concerned, you can imagine. Culture should be accessible to all. No distinctions. That’s the core mission of this foundation.”

Though her comments are couched in quasi-progressive language of “accessibility,” it is not hard to discern what Juliette means by “culture.” She probably does not have in mind, for instance, something like the Sphinx Organization or Chineke!, organizations with explicitly antiracist missions, such as supporting “Black and Latinx artists” (Sphinx) or “increasing the representation of Black and ethnically diverse musicians in British and European orchestras” (Chineke!).

Juliette’s paternalistic aims become all the more evident when the camera reveals the photographs projected behind the (again, all-white) orchestra, which depict mostly Black and Brown children dancing, painting, and engaging in other artistic pursuits. There is perhaps no more obvious display of the “fairytale about assimilation” that Da Costa describes—one that the show does not adequately critique. Indeed, as they pull away in their getaway car, one of Assane’s accomplices smugly reveals to another that the gentleman thief’s final, righteous act has been to ensure that the 9 million euros raised at the concert will, ultimately, go to Juliette’s foundation. The children in the images will, viewers are assured, be able to go hear, say, Dvořák at the Théâtre du Châtelet.

Lupin thus raises crucial questions about who has access to high culture, and it seizes several opportunities to intrude on one of that culture’s most exclusionary bastions. But it does much less to interrogate what high culture might ultimately look like. While paintings and music are crucial tools in Lupin’s pursuit of revenge, the show stops short of questioning whether the arts can truly effect radical social change. The world of high culture might be disrupted or even democratized, but it is a long way from being remade.


This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler. icon

  1. Bennett Zon, Evolution and Victorian Musical Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 80.
  2. For more on the racist histories of musical science and music theory, see, for example, Zon; Nina Sun Eidsheim, The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Duke University Press, 2019); and Philip Ewell, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” MTO, vol. 26, no. 2 (September 2020).
  3. Kirsty Sedgman, The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behavior Policing, and the Live Performance Experience (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), p. 6. For more on the racist, classist, and ableist histories of concert etiquette, see Alex Ross, “Hold Your Applause: Inventing and Reinventing the Classical Concert”; James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (University of California Press, 1995); and Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Harvard University Press, 1988).
  4. Douglas W. Shadle, Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony (Oxford University Press, 2021), p. 75.
Featured image: Omar Sy in Lupin (2021). Photograph courtesy of IMDb